Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fast Sailing and Stuffed Camels

The last part of the season’s adventure took us across the bay of Tunis to Cap Bon and then south to Kelibia and across the Bay of Hammamet to Monastir where we will winter.
We experienced the best sailing of the season during this time averaging 8 knots for the forty miles from Sidi Bou Said past the Ras el Fartass, no joke, to Cap Bon and the same for the final 15 miles from El Kantaoui to Monastir. All this was done with a fresh breeze, close to beam reaching with full sail, flat seas and sunshine.
Kelibia port is a massive and busy fishing harbour with little room for pleasure yachts, although we were made to feel welcome by both the Police and the Capitainerie. Mooring, water and electricity cost about 10.00TD per night (£4). We are berthed alongside four deep but the harbour is well protected and devoid of swell apart from fishing boat movements evening and morning. The port is dirty and the water putrid but there is interest and spectacle here. Strolling around the immediate environs of the port we were struck by the accumulation of plastic bottles, paper and other rubbish and dirt. The Tunisians don’t seem to have a strategy or public service for collecting rubbish from streets and public places. Home owners and shopkeepers wash the pavements outside their properties and a street cleaner sometimes sweeps the road gutters but nothing else seems to get done.
A taxi ride to the north of Kelibia on Cap Bon lies Kerkouane and the remains of a Punic town unearthed as recently as 1952. The settlement, with a population of 2000, dates from the 4th century BC and has been remarkably well preserved since its demise during the second Punic war in the 2nd century BC. The size of the houses, the wide streets, the town planning, architecture and the construction of the buildings suggests a sophisticated society with a high standard of living.
The remains of the houses show a layout with a central courtyard, not that different from the Arab dwellings of today and a partial upper storey. They are complete with sanitation including hip baths and basins still retaining their original water resistant murex purple dyed rendering. Lead pipes connect sink and bath and drain the bath to external gullies.
Many nearly intact opus signinum (a kind of compacted earth render) floor coverings inlaid with a mosaic of tiny stone fragments exist today some 3000 years since they were laid. The museum houses artefacts of pottery, exquisite jewellery and metal coinage that further emphasise the sophistication of these people. To visit such an ancient relic was a truly remarkable experience enhanced by the fact that we were the only tourists on the site.
We were very happy to have our first phone call on our Tunisian SIM from Miggy’s sister, Jane Gillbe. They are coming to stay with us for a couple of days in November having visited Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said on the way.
It’s not that the flies or the filth that drove us away from Kelibia and we did enjoy the authenticity of this wholly Tunisian fishing port and the lack of tourists but it was time to visit some of the sanitized ‘Zones Touristique’ of Tunisia. These are areas dedicated to the tourist where you can drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant on the street, at tourist prices mind you, without having to sit inside out of site and where street cleaning and rubbish removal services do exist.
Our course took us past Hammamet town where I spent my first package holiday some forty years ago! Things have changed massively since then with the development of the whole coastal strip with hotel complexes, albeit reasonably low rise.
Marina Jasmine and its surrounding development was completed only five or so years ago and is the largest and most spacious yacht harbour in Tunisia. It is spacious and the services are intact and well maintained. It was the first day of low season and the price per night was only £12. After the multitude of flies in Kelibia it was refreshing to find only the token fly to slaughter. It is clean here if not to say sterile. The Zone Touristique immediately around the Marina has unoccupied shops and restaurants and the main drag outside comprises five storey flats built in a long line and masses of souvenir shops.
We were able to access the internet at the Marina for the first time for ages and we had 25 emails including news from family, Ted and Iris, Ian, Jon and Genevieve and Paul and Pauline. Great to hear from you all.
The next port of call, El Kantaoui, although a recent Zone Touristique development, has been nicely planned along the lines of an Andalucía village. Unlike Mammamet Jasmine it is not soulless and there is much activity in the bars and souvenir shops around the dock sides. The Marina is not as spacious and serviceable but the place has character. Having said that there is little here that is truly Tunisian.
Finally we reached Cap Monastir Marina and, after a good deal of wrangling and a few threats about going to press issued, of course, through smiling lips Captain Jalel Ben Salem came up trumps with a splendid berth for us for the winter. He, his secretary Corin, Berthing Master, Marjoub and assistant and diver, Makhram (the latter two please forgive our spelling if you read this) are really extremely helpful, efficient and friendly. The diver ties two bow anchor lines (if one is stern to the dock) to whatever anchorage points he has on the sea bed as this apparently is the best method they have devised for keeping the boats secure during the northerly storms that we are going to experience during the winter. In fact we had one in the last day or two with 40 knot winds and we are still intact and in place!
Miggy’s birthday and the end of Ramadan coincided. Miggy, amongst most generous gifts from others, received the iconic Tunisian souvenir, a stuffed camel from me; not a real one I might add as that would be smelly. Miggy wishes to thank all who sent birthday greetings by phone, email and card. Our friends, John and Annie Corden, who christened Miggy the ‘small and noisy one’ came up with a great card the inscription on the front of which read ‘Happy Birthday to a girl who brings beauty and joy to the world......with lots of noise’. At the end of Ramadan the area became alive with local Muslims frequenting the cafés, smoking themselves to death and, for all we know, having sex during the day!
Others who may sail in our wake in the future will be well advised to read this next piece as the regulations for Visas are not adequately or fully explained in the Imray Pilot book or, indeed, in the most recent edition of the RYA’s C2/05 publication ‘Foreign Cruising Vol 2’. On entering the Country by yacht one’s passport is date stamped and one is entitled to stay for up to 3 months. To extend ones stay, at the end of 3 months one must either obtain a Visa at a price or leave the Country and return. The price of the Visa is 10TD (£4.00) per week for the remainder of the time one remains in the Country after the initial 3 month period.
Monastir was founded by the Phoenicians in the 10thC as a port. Julius Caesar camped her in 46AD before the battle of Thapsus. The town’s main attractions include the 10thC Ribat, the oldest and most intact of its type, the adjacent Grand Mosque and the walled Medina.
Monastir’s most famous son is former President Habib Bourguiba, founder of Independent Tunisia. Although now entombed in his grand mausoleum, he is omnipresent through his golden statue as a boy, his mausoleum, his controversial and vast modern mosque, the seafront esplanade and, indeed, the Marina in which we lay.
It is interesting to note our cruising statistics for the season if only see the remarkable similarity to those of last season:
2007 2006
Distance logged 1764 NM 1768 NM
Ave speed 5.25 Knots 5.25 Knots
Under canvas 27% 28%
Motoring/motor sailing 73% 72%
Days at sea whilst In commission 34% 33%

The remaining days in commission were spent either at anchor or in dock with raised glass in hand in a toast as always to:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Bay of Tunis

We paid the Capitainerie at Bizerte a princely 132 Dinars for our six night stay. This equates to about £9 a day for mooring, water and electricity. We also completed formalities with the Garde National. The young chap we dealt with didn’t know what to do and had to be advised by the Douane. What he had to do amounted to writing on a scrap of paper who we were, our official number and where we were going! It’s all good work for the working man to do!
It was a pleasant trip with bacon sarnies for breakfast and a feeling of wellbeing. From Bizerte to the Bay of Tunis the coastal shrub clad hills are progressively scattered with a patchwork of cultivated fields. The fertile Oued Medjerda river delta and valley, once the granary of Phoenicia and Rome and still agriculturally important today, hove into sight to the west as soon as we had rounded Cap Farina into the Bay. The region owes much to the Arab immigrants who arrived from Andalucía in the 17th and 18th centuries. Besides cereals and vegetables they began to grow almonds, figs, citrus fruit and grapes. The coastal belt becomes increasingly developed with fashionable holiday resorts frequented mainly by the well off Tunisians as we sailed south towards Tunis but the development is sympathetic with the surroundings.
We were berthed in the Marina, said to be the most expensive in Tunisia at £16 per night all inclusive, with Sidi Bou Said looking charming up on the hill above us with its whitewashed houses and blue mashrabiya shutters, balconies and doors.
Formalities with the Police involved giving the Officer 100 cigarettes ‘Backshish’. This is perfectly normal in southern Tunisia and, as in our case, may be requested blatantly. It is wise to conform with this tradition as it will save a great deal of aggravation and inconvenience and possibly an inordinate amount of time spent completing paperwork and the like.
The walk some three to four hundred steps up the steep hill to Sid Bou Said was exhausting and sweaty in the mid morning sun. The blue doors in the village are only superficially identical. They differ in the pattern of the studding with popular motifs such as moon crescents, stars and minarets.
Sidi Bou Said is named after a 13th Century ‘Sufi’ holy man who settled here on his return from his pilgrimage to Mecca. It became a centre of ‘Sufism’ and as such a place of pilgrimage. The tomb of Sidi Bou Said is visited by the Muslim faithful to this day.
The village is still bustling with pilgrims who come not only from Tunisia but from all over the world. They crowd the narrow cobbled streets and barter in the souks for precious goods to take back to their own countries. These faithful are called tourists and they come in their bus loads. We are, of course, tourists and so cannot complain but it is better to see the village after the tourists have gone when it is taken over by the locals. An hour spent over a café turc smoking a ‘chichas’ or Hookah at the famous Café Nattes where the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, Simone de Beauvoir and other artists of the time used to hang is exceptionally relaxing and atmospheric.
We gazed from the terrace of the Café Sidi Chabanne sipping a Thé au Pignons, mint tea with pine nuts, over the beautiful Bay of Tunis and at Bella sitting peacefully on its mooring in the Marina below.
A visit to a traditional Sid Bou mansion still occupied by a lawyer and his family was fascinating. Those of the fifty five rooms that we saw together with the cool courtyards and gardens gave a real insight into the life of the well off middle class of Tunis many of whom have their mansions in this area. The panoramic views from the terraces were stunning stretching from Tunis itself to Carthage and over the Bay to the hills to the south and Cap Bon to the north around which we shall sail when we leave this delightful place.
Sidi Bou Said is famous for its beautiful ornate white painted birdcages. They resemble the curved window grilles found in the wooden shutters of Arab houses but they look like miniature mausoleums.
Just along the bay from the Marina is the Presidential Place compound. It is well protected as you would imagine even from seaward. We must not deviate far from our course when we leave for fear of capture, if not foundering from hostile fire!
The alarm woke us early with the view of travelling to Tunis in the comparative cool of the day before the sun gets too high but, of course, it was cloudy and rain was falling as we alighted from the TGM train at Tunis Marine Station. The TGM sounds awfully grand for the noisy, bone shaking contraption that we were on but it got us there in less than half an hour at the ridiculous fare of about 80p for 1st class return.
Tunis dates back to the early days of nearby Carthage and there is evidence that it existed from the first Punic War. Destroyed in 146BC, it wasn’t until the 7th Century that the Arabs recognised its strategic importance and developed the city, starting with the Great Mosque in AD732, until it became a major centre of science, culture and religion in North Africa. With trade flourishing between Europe and the East, Tunis became an Arab metropolis and capital.
The city centre divides distinctly into two halves, the modern metropolis built mainly by the French and the historic UNESCO World Heritage Site Medina, little changed since medieval times, full of Mosques, souks and ancient palaces.
The 8th century Great Mosque some of the original of which remains to this day stands at the heart of the city amongst the cobbled narrow streets of the bustling souks. The prayer hall and courtyard of this Mosque, indeed any Mosque, are sacred ground and, as such, entry is forbidden to non Muslims. It doesn’t seem right, does it, when a person of any faith can walk into say Canterbury, Salisbury and York Cathedrals.
The medina has over twenty souks forming one vast animated marketplace surrounding the Great Mosque. The principal souks for upmarket goods such as jewellery, religious books, carpets and perfumes were closest to the Mosque and those that were smelly or dirty, such as tanning leather are furthest away.
Talking of carpets, all ruses are used to try to get you to buy one. An invitation to get a panoramic view over the Mosque will inevitably end up in the invitee’s brother in law’s carpet shop. We have successfully resisted such attempts by saying ‘no, bugger off’ in the nicest possible way through gritted teeth but with a smile on our lips.
The Tour bet el Bey is unique. It is a mausoleum for the Beys, 18th century Husaynid Kings, their wives and dignitaries. Their tombs are crammed into exquisitely tiled chambers with beautiful fretwork plaster ceilings and domes. The men’s tombs are topped with marble fezzes or turbans and the ladies with a headstone at each end.
We witnessed the severest thunderstorm either of us has encountered. The fork and sheet lightning was markedly dazzling and too close for comfort coming, as it did, only a second before the ear splitting thunderclaps. The rain fell in torrents sometimes as massive hailstones. It stayed over or around us for at least eight hours and Miggy reckoned it was reminiscent of those she had lived through during the monsoon in India.
People say that the Roman remains at Carthage are an anticlimax in that what there are of them are scattered widely over a large area amongst the mansions of the rich Tunisians. I must admit that I was here over forty years ago and remember little although that is probably nothing to do with the impact the site had on me but more the loss of memory due to age.
We limited our visit to a few ruins in close proximity to one another, the Antonine Baths, the remains of villas and Hadrian’s Palace, Hadrian’s theatre and the museum, and we found them all fascinating.
Carthage was founded in BC814 by the Phoenicians and by the 4th century BC had become a major force in this part of the Mediterranean. The Romans raised it to the ground during the Punic wars and re-established it as a huge city of great influence. It gradually fell into ruins following its occupation by the Vandals, the Byzantines and finally the Arabs in 695AD.
The best preserved of the Roman ruins are the Antonine Baths. These 2nd century AD baths were once the largest in Africa and they are vast and very impressive particularly when filled with water as they were after yesterday’s storm.
Land and sea trade grew under the stable rule of Caesar Augustus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and that resulted in the growing prosperity of the inhabitants of the city. The ruins of the villas and Hadrian’s Palace clearly show the layout of the accommodation and the street plan. The original intricate mosaic floors are in good condition to this day.
Hadrian’s theatre, although mostly rebuilt, was evidently a feat of construction in its perfect semicircular form. The magnificent thing is that it is still used for performances of theatre and music.
It is extraordinary that we were alone at the last two sites. The helter skelter schedule of the organised tours no doubt allows no time to see these extremely fascinating remains of a great Roman city.
The museum is a little disorganized but displays some ancient and extremely interesting Punic, Roman, Christian and Arab artefacts taken from the site of Carthage. The museum stands on top of Byrsa Hill where the Roman Forum and Capitol used to dominate and overlook the city. Ruins of the buildings still exist as well as the foundation of Punic houses nearby.
We will remember with affection our time in the Bay of Tunis as we will meeting and taking wine with Yannick and Denise, a French couple from Vannes and with Ken and Maureen, an American couple who have been cruising the world for a long time and who, as well as speaking Italian and French, are, astonishingly, fluent in Chinese.
Some of you may have heard Miggy on BBC Radio Solent on Monday the 8th. Her next broadcast is on the 12th of December sometime between 0630 and 0645.
We have now arrived at our winter base, Monastir. We will publish a blog about the east coast of Tunisia from The Bay of Tunis around Cap Bon and south to our present location in the very near future, that is, when we can find internet access. Our address here at Monastir is:
S/V Bella
Marina Cap Monastir
B.P.60, 5000 Monastir,
Tel: +216 214 353 17

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

First Impressions of Tunisia

Having settled the extremely generous fee for our extended stay, averaging only £9 per day inclusive of hauling out and relaunching, the totally unexpected happened as Antonelli, the dour and sometime abrasive Marina owner, came to the boat and gave us an inscribed bottle opener in the shape of a workman with hard hat as a memento of our stay at Marina del Sole, Cagliari. I am sure I detected a tear in his eye. In any case we were absolutely delighted and a little flabbergasted.
An 0830 start found us motoring away from the marina Del Sole, a place along with Cagliari itself, which we had come to like very much. A base here would not be the worst in the world with its easy access to the pleasant cruising grounds of Sardinia, Corsica, mainland Italy the French Riviera and the Islands between.
As soon as we had cleared the confines of the Golfo di Cagliari and were in deep water Miggy cast her new game fishing tackle. She was becoming disillusioned at not having a bite when the strike came and for the next hour and a half Miggy fought with this creature until it gave up. She was black and blue with the scars of the battle with a Tuna of around 12 kilos or 25 lbs. To cap it all we had to take dramatic action during this struggle to avoid a massive tanker that had taken a dislike to us and was determined to send us to the bottom of the ocean.
This wasn’t the only fish we caught as overnight our first flying fish landed on the deck. In total contrast to our previous catch it was about 15 cm long!
We and the locals have been saying that this has been an extraordinarily windy year. Once again despite the forecast for light to moderate conditions, we encountered force 6 winds overnight from around 2000 to 0500 the next morning. Bella romped along at 7 knots plus enjoying every minute but I’m not sure the crew were quite as enamoured. Spectacular stars shone out of a moonless sky and our wake echoed their brilliance with sparkling phosphorescence in islands the size of dinner plates.
An easing of the wind and sea state as we threaded the Galite Islands and a bacon (brought back from the UK) roll soon restored the crew’s zest for life in time for our arrival at the Tunisian port of Tabarka at 0845 on the 13th September where Miggy directly butchered the fish. We had covered the 147 mile passage in just 24 hours. Tabarka is only about fourteen miles from the border with Algeria, which remains an unwelcoming land into whose waters we are glad we did not stray.
Entry formalities into Tunisia involve a lot of walking between the Offices of the Harbour Authority, Customs and a multitudinous number of Police Forces but we gained our ‘Permis de Circulation’ in the end.
We got a ‘Tunisiana’ SIM card after much tooing and frowing including the production of a passport! The number is 00216 214 353 17.
After a delicious supper of fresh caught Tuna steak washed down with Sardinian vino rosso at 1euro per litre we went to bed only to be woken cruelly at midnight by a violent thunderstorm with torrential rain and winds gusting at 40 knots or more.
The harbour of Tabarka has disgustingly filthy water and electricity and water facilities are either broken or have been repaired by Heath Robinson. The town is awash with dirt and discarded litter and rubbish from overflowing bins ground into the pavements. The dockside is awash with feral cats all of whom want to join us as crew! It is not a place in which we would like to spend any length of time. It is however reputed to have excellent diving as there is rare red coral which is savagely harvested.
There are a lot of prayers being sung all day as, not only is it Ramadan, but it is also the Muslim holy day. A maroon was launched at sunset to let the Muslim populous know they could eat, drink and be merry until sunrise. Thank God we don’t take Lent as seriously as this.
The coastline of this northern coast of Tunisia is mountainous interrupted with sand dunes and beautiful white sand beaches. The laurel, mimosa and herbal plants on the hillsides are surprisingly green. The valleys just to the south of the coastline are reportedly fertile with pine, cork oak, eucalyptus and oleander as well as fruit orchards. The region is known as ‘Green Tunisia’
Just five or so miles to the north of Bizerte we passed Cap Blanc which is the reputed to be the most northerly point of Africa although the geographically correct northern tip of the continent is Ras Ben Sekka which we sailed past a few miles to the west.
Our first impression of Bizerte was good. The welcome and assistance of the Port de Plaisance ‘Surveillants’ on our arrival, the ease of formalities and the clear blue water and fresh air all being in total contrast to our experience at Tabarka.
Bizerte has the dubious claim to fame of being the last stronghold of French colonialism. Around 1600 Tunisians died in the battle here in 1961 when Bourghuiba finally ousted the French. The harbour has been of strategic importance since the Phoenicians settled here around 800BC and has been fought over since by everyone including the Romans and Turks and it was settled by the Spanish Andalusian Moors in the 17th century.
The Old Port area is attractive, the small quay being lined with fascinating buildings. The entrance is guarded by the Kasbah on one side which houses the Great Mosque and a huge Medina and a citadel or fort on the other. The produce on sale in the vast fruit and veg and fish and meat market is not as plentiful or diverse as we have experienced in Europe. In fact the fruit was overripe and needs to be bought daily. We withhold judgement on the meat and fish until we have tried it.
The daily rate for berthing in ports along the north coast is around £8 inclusive of water and electricity and it is still considered high season! Let’s hope this keeps up for the Bay of Tunis where next we are headed. Let’s also hope that we can access the internet more often than at present.